12 facilitation tips to turn virtual participants into active protagonists

Setting up effective virtual meetings with distributed team members is not easy – especially in 2020, when most people are forced to work from home.

When it comes to increasing engagement, virtual meetings follow most of the principles that apply to regular meetings. However, virtual meetings are even more challenging; people are more susceptible to boredom, multi-tasking, and many other distractions. Time on virtual seems to fly faster, but so does people’s energy.

After many years of facilitating workshops and team sessions (remote and in-person) with multiple organizations, I have found that much of meeting dysfunction can be traced to the lack of design, qualified facilitators, and participation planning. Not surprisingly, most organizations complain about having ineffective meetings, but they keep focusing on the process rather than on designing engagement.

Try these 12 facilitation tips based on my experience facilitating hundreds of remote sessions. They will help you turn participants into active protagonists.

1. Mind Your Virtual Etiquette

While each meeting might have its own norms, there is some basic virtual etiquette that everyone should abide by to create successful online meetings.

Think of them as the must-dos of online meeting etiquette:

  • The meeting should start and end on time
  • Put your camera on (visual language is everything)
  • Dress accordingly
  • Do the pre-work, and come prepared
  • Be present––don’t work on other tasks or stare at your phone
  • Turn your microphone off when not talking
  • Turn your camera off (but stay connected) during the breaks
  • Use the chat to ask questions (the facilitator will address those when possible)
  • Use audio only when requested or during team breakouts

Also, don’t forget to test all technology (including audio, video, Wi-Fi, etc.) before the meeting. Equally importantly, turn off all notifications, and join from a quiet area.

2. Begin your virtual meeting with a quick check-in

A check-in round helps ground a team by focusing on the meeting rather than on their worries. This is even more important for virtual sessions.

Start the meeting by asking one of the following questions:

“What’s got your attention?”

“What one word describes how you feel right now?”

“How does it feel working from home?”

Form a virtual circle, and let everyone answer it one-by-one. Let the facilitator run this exercise, and name the person who should go next.

A mindset check-in drives empathy and focus, but it’s also a way to give everyone their ‘moment of glory.’ Not only can teams members share their emotions but also feel acknowledged by their colleagues.

3. Turn participants into active contributors

Lack of engagement is not an individual issue, but a cultural problem. Rather than trying to ‘fix’ people, organizations must see colleagues as users. Senior leaders are responsible for designing an employee experience that increases participation.

Furthermore, people don’t just want to participate; they want to contribute. The objective of any meeting, virtual or not, is to tap into the collective wisdom. It’s about learning, understanding the problem, and creating new solutions, together.

Involve people along the way. Invite them to help design the session or craft the agenda and desired outcomes. Have participants do some prep work. A virtual meeting doesn’t start the day the session happens; it happens the moment you kick off the planning.

4. Promote a safe virtual environment

Innovation requires participation, not silence. True collaboration requires a safe space where emotions can be addressed, not suppressed. Unfortunately, most people keep their best ideas to themselves.

“Silence usually means people are holding back,” says Joseph Grenny, the coauthor of Crucial Conversations

Successful meetings (and team collaboration) requires diversity of thinking and positive friction. Groupthink, passive-aggressiveness, and disengagement happen when most people stay silent. They let a few control the conversation.

Promoting psychological safety is not only important but also more necessary when hosting virtual meetings. Body language can be misinterpreted; silence can be a sign of ineffective facilitation, disengagement, or people feeling intimidated to share their thoughts.

One way to encourage people to participate is to reframe silence as an agreement. As a facilitator, let people know that, if they don’t say anything, the group will assume everyone agrees.

This challenge is usually helpful because you are giving silence a particular meaning to people. The only way for them to show disagreement is by speaking up.

Start small to go big. You can’t expect people to start opening up and asking questions overnight. Even the most communicative groups need some time to warm-up.

Facilitate some quick exercises to develop empathy and build a safe space progressively. Let people share small personal stories with a partner. Working in duos makes it safer for participants to open up.

Suggested exercises: “Who are you?” and “36 questions to turn strangers into friends.

Now form teams of 3–5 people and facilitate more challenging exercises.

Suggested exercises: “Triad Feedback” and “Stinky Fish.”

Setting up the room is crucial to let people relax, engage with one another, and build trust little by little. It will then feel easier to chime in when working on more challenging topics.

5. Preparation is everything: the power of pre-work

Designing the session ahead is just part of the preparation; get people’s input and create a session for people’s actual concerns, not what you think they’ll need.

One-on-one interviews don’t just help you understand people’s expectations, but they also make people feel included. Surveys, when well designed, can provide valuable insights – keep them short and include open questions, too.

If your goal is to create a new strategy, share some inspirational reading ahead of time. If your team is dealing with limiting mindsets, make them do some exercises to start reflecting on what’s holding them back.

Pre-work is a powerful way to increase engagement in a virtual meeting before it even happens. Sending an exercise or asking people to analyze material prior to the meeting can save a lot of time. Use the time together to collaborate and co-create not to do things that people can do on their own anytime.

6. Manage time like a tyrant

Starting and finishing meetings on time should be part of any meeting etiquette. However, virtual meetings are more challenging and require that the facilitator becomes a strict referee when it comes to time management.

Online workshops can quickly derail; people tend to speak more or derail from the agenda or task at hand when working remotely. Let participants know beforehand that time will be managed like a tyrant, so no one takes it personally.

Start by designing the session, step by step, assigning time not only for presentations or group exercises, but also for debriefing and the different dynamics (i.e., switching people to breakout rooms). Consider breaks and build some cushion for unexpected things.

SessionLab is a great tool that allows you to obsessively plan a virtual workshop or meeting, allocating time for everything.

Before each activity, let people know how much time they have. Provide a heads up when time is running out, and use a visual element or alarms to notify when time is over.

Using cues always help. Usually, introductions derail as some people love to talk about themselves. One way to fix this is to ask people to introduce themselves using 20 words maximum, or “share your name, occupation, and where you want to go when the lockdown is over.”

Time is always a challenge when running any meetings; it’s even more challenging during virtual sessions. Plan ahead and manage time like a tyrant. People might not like it first, but they will thank you when they realize how productive a meeting can become.

7. Give people a break (really)

Taking breaks is a healthy practice that allows people to re-energize but also makes a virtual meeting feel more dynamic and engaging.

How many and how long depends on the composition of the team and how mentally challenging the session is. When I run a 7/8-hour live masterclass, I usually include 3 breaks (two 15-minute and a 30-minute one). For a 3-hour session, a single 15-minute break could be enough.

Don’t assign tasks during breaks. Encourage people to relax, stretch their bodies, walk, hydrate, and take care of themselves. A break is not just a pause; it’s a moment for personal reflection and taking distance, so everyone can get back to the meeting re-energized.

Some people like to have a Zoom DJ playing music during breaks to add some fun as well to signal the start and end of each break.

One last thing: I always recommend that people turn off their video and audio functions, but don’t disconnect from the session. There’s a psychological benefit when people feel that they are still connected to each other. Also, it saves a lot of time from people having to log in again, especially if the meeting requires giving attendees permission to join in (as most meeting should, for security reasons).

8. Ensure equal participation in virtual meetings

The key task of a facilitator is to make it easier and safer for people to participate. Design the meeting so everyone gets their fair share to contribute.

The easiest way to do is by applying conversational turn-taking; give people equal turns to provide feedback, ask questions, or share their ideas. Neutralize loud voices by ensuring that quiet people go first.

The same applies during virtual brainstorming, which can be intimidating for many people. Start with silent brainstorming; invite people to write their ideas on a piece of paper or word document before sharing with others. Then, people can start sharing with each other using Mural, Miro, or another collaborative tool.

As a facilitator, monitor that everyone’s ideas are considered and that no one is taking control of the group.

9. Energizers and icebreaker are vital to keeping virtual meetings engaging

Online meetings and workshops can deplete the energy and are often more draining than in-person sessions. Icebreakers are ideal for creating transitions in-between activities or to re-energize a team right after a break.

There are different types of energizers. Though most are simple and fun, choose them with a purpose.

Energizers are very effective to:

  • Keep people engaged and energized
  • Create a safe space for people to experiment and open up
  • Have fun and strengthen bonding
  • Transitioning from one section to another
  • Switching the mindset (i.e. from analytical to creative)

A nice body stretch and breathing exercise can help a team recover focus after a lunch break. Planning a fun party with a “Yes, and…” approach is an effective way to create the right building mindset before a brainstorm. Taking a picture of your shoes and sharing it with others is a silly way to start conversations that build camaraderie.

Here’s an interesting collection of energizers curated by SessionLab, categorized by type and duration, that include detailed facilitation guides.

Online energizers are the difference between a workshop being productive or feeling like a waste of time. 

10. Break out people in small groups during virtual workshops

Remote meetings are full of challenges. These problems only amplify as meeting size increases, where air time becomes scarce and people quickly disengage from the conversation.

The number one rule in team performance is that, as the size of a team increases, productivity and creativity decrease. To have more productive discussions or brainstorming sessions, divide people into smaller groups – ideally 5-7 people per group.

Dividing larger groups into smaller virtual breakouts provides the benefit from parallel processing; each group can see the problem from a different angle and/ or find alternative solutions. Cross-pollinate learning by having teams sharing their findings or solutions with each other. Encourage the other team to provide feedback, push back, or ask questions (like Pixar does with its Braintrusts).

Set up the teams in advance and aim for diversity of profiles and thinking. Depending on the nature and duration of the session, you might stick to the same composition throughout the meeting or rotate people half-way.

11. Have an expert facilitator for your online meetings

Facilitating a virtual meeting is more complicated than running a regular meeting. It’s easy to lose track of engagement, time, or people’s emotional state.

Having a skilled facilitator in virtual meetings always helps to make things smoother. It’s about having someone who’s focused on the overall dynamics, not just on selling their ideas to others.

Train your team members to become skilled virtual facilitators. Hire someone external when dealing with challenging issues, or if you want to learn how to improve your virtual sessions.

Facilitating a meeting requires more than proper skills; it requires extensive experience and confidence to deal with tensions and unexpected issues.

More often than not, I have to deal with people that are boycotting a meeting or controlling managers that bully their colleagues. Tough conversations need to happen to put tensions aside and regain collaboration and productivity.

When dealing with sensitive topics or not-so-safe cultures, it requires skilled facilitators who could help people to open up. Having an external facilitator enables openness and vulnerability as they don’t take their feedback or comments so personally.

Interesting note: watch out for the facilitator’s dependency. The facilitator should guide the session, not take it over. Skilled facilitators equip people with the right tools and skills; they don’t create dependency.

12. Gamify participation and feedback in virtual meetings

Teams learn more in a day of playing than in a year of talking. When we replace presentations and talks with action, great things can happen.

Collaborative games can make a virtual meeting less intimidating and more engaging. They help lower defense mechanisms and allow people to be themselves, take risks, and be more creative.

Reward contribution by creating rituals that encourage participation. Use a virtual ball and pass it on to whoever wants to speak next.

Teams at Facebook play virtual trivia each afternoon to stay connected. People share GIFs and memes regularly on Slack channels; create a GIF Challenge and invite participants to vote for a winner.

Invite people to a free pizza event with the condition that everyone who grabs a slice must ask a question. The Pizza Slice exercise promotes camaraderie but also follows the game’s number one rule: nobody wants to lose.

Conclusion

The biggest challenge of remote meetings is to keep everyone engaged and productive. Consider the tips above to design your meetings for active participation.

Do you need to host an engaging and productive online workshop? Do you need help to encourage participation and open dialogue during virtual meetings?

Reach out. Let’s discuss how we can help you.

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